The Great Escape: A new play by Dana Yeaton makes a scene with a troubled teen | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Great Escape: A new play by Dana Yeaton makes a scene with a troubled teen

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When Stephen Paul Johnson showed up at a New York City audition last January to try out for the part of Roland in The Big Random, a “young girl” was holding the elevator door for him. “She turned and looked at me in a penetrating way,” he says. “I had a hunch she had already been cast as Claire. Her intensity made me think, ‘Whoa! I hope I get to read with her.’”

The girl, in turn, has similar memories. “We arrived at approximately the same time,” recalls Genia Michaela, a petite 24-year-old who can easily pass for 15. “I took one look and knew right away he was Roland, so I just gave him my Claire.”

The chance meeting of kindred thespian spirits bodes well for Dana Yeaton’s latest drama, about a somewhat dissipated man who becomes a reluctant surrogate parent to a bright, terribly troubled teenager. The Middlebury playwright is working with Vermont Stage Company to produce The Big Random, opening April 24 at the FlynnSpace in Burlington.

In 1998, Yeaton’s Mad River Rising tackled issues of rural life in the state. Midwives, which he adapted from Chris Bohjalian’s novel about a home birth that goes horribly wrong, was a highly praised 2000 show for the troupe.

“This time, I started with the image of a young woman in a psychiatric ward, gazing out the window, and thought about what could intervene to make her life different,” Yeaton says. “I brought in this alcoholic godfather — another needy person — because I’d just been named a godfather for someone’s baby.”

Vermont Stage Artistic Director Mark Nash witnessed the evolution of The Big Random. “Dana brought his first draft to our Young Playwrights Festival last May,” he explains. “It’s a whimsical and theatrical piece of writing about two lonely, lost people who try to connect. Whether they do or not is less important than the attempt.”

Nash suggests the new work is “a little bit risky, the most unknown quantity we’ve tried.”

Nonetheless, the play managed to entice Jim Gaylord, a director who first hooked up with Vermont Stage to guide Midwives. He initially read the Yeaton adaptation on the subway. “I missed 14th Street,” he says. “I suddenly found myself at the next station and realized that, if a story can pull me in like this on the written page, it’s something I should do.”

The Midwives experience was a positive one. “There’s often a myth that theater must be created under crisis, which takes an enormous amount of energy that I don’t think pays off in the end,” he notes. With Vermont Stage, “I’m allowed to stay in a non-crisis frame of mind. That’s not to say crisis doesn’t happen, but you don’t have to let it take over.”

Nash believes that Gaylord “is really a perfect fit for us, because my philosophy is indeed about no-stress theater.”

Still not certain whether he would commit to The Big Random, Gaylord attended a workshop at Nash’s Charlotte home last summer. “We talked it through and then Dana spent three days rewriting based on what came out of that,” he says. That flexibility helped convince him to join the project. “This is definitely not a movie-of-the-week. Claire and Roland are so ‘not right’ together that their behavior doesn’t lead us in predictable ways.”

Between the time the cast congregated for a late February reading at the Haskell Free Library in Derby Line, and a second session at the FlynnSpace two weeks later, “a lot of changes had happened in the story,” Yeaton says. “It was open season on the play in terms of commentary. The actors seemed rather surprised at how much influence they were having. Genia sent me a six-page, single-spaced letter with suggestions.”

Things are still fluid during a recent rehearsal at Trinity College. “There’s a state of flux as to Roland’s exact identity,” is how Stephen Paul Johnson describes his perception. “Is he a mechanic? Or does he own an auto-body shop? In one interim draft, he became a roofer for a short time. Now that he’s married, it makes him a different kind of a guy than before. I need to know what daydreams he has, what places he hangs out in, what kind of friends he has. Little details like that will help me understand this character.”

At her first audition, Genia Michaela was immediately intrigued by the handful of pages she’d been given. “I actually stole a script. I just had to find out what happened in the rest of the play,” she admits. “Then I felt so bad, at the second audition I decided to slip it back when nobody was looking.”

This confession is remarkably Claire-like. In The Big Random, she shoplifts a Swiss Army knife, a worrisome object in the hands of a Massachusetts teen who has been incarcerated for cutting herself. The scene unfolds after the manipulative girl has hoodwinked Roland — a complete stranger claiming to be her godfather — into engineering a spontaneous getaway from the hospital. They embark on a freewheeling road trip through New Hampshire and Quebec that lands them at a Vermont shrine.

“Look, I am way over my head here,” Roland tells Claire in one of many lines that express his exasperation with her. “I’ve been using patience I don’t even have.”

Roland’s tough-love approach and Claire’s escapism inform their verbal pas de deux, which has been choreographed around several motifs. One of them is cinematic. Her fantasies, spoken out loud as if only the audience can hear, are full of screenplay-worthy dialogue. In her imagination she’s alternately a clever Russian spy or an heiress kidnapped by Venezuelan gangsters or a member of the French Resistance, tortured but refusing to betray her comrades.

“Dana didn’t want just a misunderstood teen-ager,” Michaela explains. “Claire has no idea of who she is. She’s in a survival mode.”

Gaylord agrees. “Genia has captured the essence of who I think Claire really is: The character has an incisive mind, an almost speeded-up intellect, and yet there’s still this child who gets caught misbehaving. At the audition, there was something about Genia’s eyes that told me she could portray a person struggling with being 15. She’s also got a delicacy about her.”

In real life, Michaela’s delicacy disguises a competitive athlete — she’s an ice hockey fanatic. After playing violin until age 7 and becoming a piano prodigy at 9, the Louisiana native mastered operatic vocals while studying at a North Carolina arts school as a 12-year-old. At 13, the honey-blonde actress found some non-singing success on Broadway, and much less of it in Hollywood, before heading for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994.

During her second semester at the brainiac college, Michaela discovered she had an affinity for women’s ice hockey despite no prior skating expertise. “I realized I wasn’t going to be a scientist or engineer, so I researched a list of top schools with Division I teams,” she says. “I was accepted by Yale and developed into quite a hockey player, but academically ended up in theater.”

After graduation in 1999, Michaela returned to New York. “It was really starting all over, but lately I’ve been on quite a roll,” she notes. “Hallelujah!”

Johnson would probably say amen to that. His character in The Big Random is driven by religious notions of salvation – another thematic element in the play. Roland is a lapsed Catholic who has a history with the kind of 12-step program that promotes a spiritual path to healing. A pilfered Gideon Bible becomes a significant prop.

“His motive is to do right by somebody for once in his life,” suggests Johnson, an experienced Shakespearean actor whose upper-middle-class roots can be traced to Oklahoma City. “Roland wants to help Claire, but they both have issues regarding trust. While an undergrad, I once tried to help someone with profound psychological problems and discovered I was dealing with a paranoid schizophrenic. You just want to be a mensch. That’s what God put us on Earth for.”

But it may have been Johnson’s dark side that got him the part. “I didn’t want Roland to be creepy,” Gaylord says. “Initially, I didn’t picture him as quite so good-looking, but he’s a guy who could be a womanizer, and Claire has to not be repulsed by him. I was glad Steve conveyed an underlying sense of menace. I like his balance between mystery and revealing just enough that the tapestry is complete.”

For the 44-year-old Yeaton, The Big Random has been a chance to explore “my empathy and concern for young people,” he says. The stage provides what he calls his “soapbox,” but the playwright’s perspective on adolescence comes through teaching the craft to high school students and raising children of his own — a son, who is now 20, and a daughter, 17. “I was definitely drawing on my parenting in an abstract way,” Yeaton says. “Society saddles kids with contradictory, hollow messages. I think of Claire as a product of our culture, and I hope we all feel a little bit implicated by that.”

The Big Random opens Wednesday, April 24 at the FlynnSpace in Burlington and runs through Sunday, May 5. For info, call the Vermont Stage Company at 862-1497. Tickets, 86-FLYNN.

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